Hearing from individuals associated with SIPA is a great way to learn about what our programs offer and we have an extensive interview page for this purpose featuring current students, alumni, and faculty. The following is an interview with a student that is pursuing a dual degree with Urban Planning. For a full list of our dual degree programs click here.
Victoria Okoye is pursuing an Economic and Political Development concentration at SIPA with a professional focus on Urban Planning and Development. She earned a Bachelors in Journalism and a Bachelors in International Studies from the University of Missouri. She came to SIPA with a strong interest in women’s issues, human rights and African economic development. Her experience was in these areas as well – she did research work on gender issues related to women’s empowerment in political decision-making; did internships working on immigration issues related to human rights and women’s rights/gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
How did you get started in SIPA and Urban Planning? Both at the same time or one after the other? How much more do you have?
I actually began my coursework at SIPA, and it was in my first semester that I decided to apply for a dual-degree in Urban Planning.
How did you find the core curriculum at SIPA? How does this compare with the core curriculum of Architecture/Urban Planning? Is there any overlap?
In my opinion, my MIA and Urban Planning experience have been quite different, but very much complementary. SIPA has a much more rigorous core curriculum, with required economics and statistics courses; in addition, taking the Economic Development course had helped me better understand the economic context of development, so I’m quite appreciative of that.
In addition, the Conceptual Foundations course, Interstate Relations requirement, and Africa-focused courses that I’ve taken as part of my core curriculum have really been important for shaping the context of development, understanding general trends, and really having a strong grasp of what the important issues are. My Urban Planning core coursework (in Planning Theory, Planning Techniques, Urban Economics, Planning Law) has emphasized the role of the urban planner as a negotiator, mediator, basically, an individual working within and among institutions in order to achieve equitable urban development processes.
How did you obtain your internship? Is there an internship requirement for Urban Planning? If so, could you use that internship to fulfill the SIPA requirement or vice versa?
I actually obtained my internship through a contact I had made through my participation in the SIPA/Columbia University-sponsored Ghana/Nigeria policy tour. The tour was organized by three SIPA students, and we had the opportunity to travel to Accra, the capital of Ghana, as well as Lagos, Abuja, and Enugu in Nigeria.
There is no internship requirement at Urban Planning, although it is strongly recommended. I envision that it would definitely be possible to use a required SIPA internship to count for credit toward my Urban Planning degree program.
What kind of work do you hope to do when you graduate?
After graduation, I’m especially interested in working in Nigeria on water infrastructure issues; given the recent trend toward privatization, I’m interested in working with local stakeholders to devise ways to better integrated them into the planning, operating and monitoring processes.
What has been the most challenging part of your SIPA experience given the dual degree? Do you work at SIPA (PA-ship) – how is the fellowship process with your dual degree?
I think the most challenging thing has been trying to be strategic about how I structure my program, and finding the right balance.
Although neither program has too many requirements, and it’s possible to “double count,” there are just so many interesting and worthwhile courses here at the University! So another challenge has really been focusing on taking the best courses for my interest – where I can gain knowledge, but also build skills that I can in turn use in my professional work after graduate school.
Given that pursuing a dual degree is a major financial investment, I am happy to say that I have really done my best and been pretty successful in taking advantages of my opportunities. In my second year (at Urban Planning), I was awarded a scholarship through the program, and I also applied for and was awarded an outside scholarship. In my final year (this year), I was selected for a Program Assistantship with a regional institute on campus, and I also was awarded an additional scholarship through Urban Planning. So, I’m definitely very thankful of the financial support that both my SIPA and Urban Planning program have provided.
What advice would you give a first-year student?
For those pursing a dual-degree, reach out to alumni and current students who are further along to get their advice about how to strategize your program based on your interests. Get to know the Deans and SIPA concentration Directors early on; they are such great resources!
What attracted you to SIPA?
I was attracted to a number of things: The Workshop project through the EPD concentration, the wide variety of experiences of SIPA students and alumni, the missions of the program and many of its students (the strong focus on international development issues), the opportunity to study a language while I am here, and also the opportunity to pursue a dual-degree.
What experiences do you think prepared you at attend SIPA?
In my undergraduate year, I worked on a year-long research project examining women’s progress in national decision-making in three African countries. I’d also completed a number of internships/work and have always been interested in pursuing an international career focused on development work.
SIPA features lots of events for students to attend. Is there any interesting presentation that you have attended that you could comment upon?
The Institute of African Studies-sponsored debate on Darfur between Prof. Mahmood Mamdani and John Prendergast; the African Diplomatic Forum and African Economic Forum, SIPA Follies, Kofi Annan’s speech at the World Leaders Forum, and the numerous informational sessions sponsored by OCS (Catholic Relief Services, Consulting, Getting a Job at International Organizations, etc.)
Can you talk about your workshop experience?
I’ve only begun the workshop, as I am completing the Methods/Workshop sequence this year. So far, it’s been great! I’m working with a team of students to outline opportunities and constraints for foreign direct investment for Kaduna, Nigeria as part of a project for the Millennium Cities Initiative, Earth Institute.
What kind of work did you do to meet the SIPA internship requirement?
I interned in Abuja, Nigeria, working with a private development company interested in building a technology park to bring investment and economic development to the region and the country.
Can you comment on the quantitative rigor in the curriculum?
I think it’s good that the MIA curriculum has been strengthened with more quantitative-focused core courses. I think the curriculum provides a sufficient amount of emphasis on quantitative tools already, but it’s up to students to realize the importance of quantitative courses and seek them out – there are plenty available.
What most surprised you about SIPA after you arrived?
Economic Analysis I and II were so hard! I definitely did not expect that – but it was a good challenge and I learned A LOT.